A one-armed man. Two guys sentenced to a year in the house. And a parolee. Sounds like the cast list for a new cop drama.
But that’s the safety depth chart entering the final Saturday of the regular season. And Austin Collinsworth, Elijah Shumate, Max Redfield and Eilar Hardy are the four-man crew that’s going to be asked to run with and slow down USC’s receiving corps, the most athletic group Notre Dame’s secondary has seen since Florida State.
The situation at cornerback isn’t much better. Joining this operation will be a grizzled veteran with a bum wheel: Cody Riggs. Also featured is the cornerback with a bad past, with the burn-marks from last week still stinging Devin Butler. But the sophomore will be back out in coverage, asked to matchup with freshman phenom JuJu Smith or former all-world recruit George Farmer.
Cole Luke showed he was up for the task last weekend against DeVante Parker. So this week he’ll take on Nelson Agholor, a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist. Up against a quarterback who has thrown exactly four interceptions against 30 touchdowns and the ravaged back end of the Irish defense will be in for a tough test.
It’s been a long time since Notre Dame had critical depth issues like this in the secondary. And this comes after Kelly and his defensive coaching staff put an emphasis on restocking a depth chart all-but ignored by the previous regime.
But there have been some bumps along the road. And sometimes the best laid plans end — well, like this. Here’s a quick run through on how we got here.
Collinsworth was Kelly’s first recruit at Notre Dame. And he’s the only member of the secondary from the 2010 class not to transfer (Chris Badger, Lo Wood, Spencer Boyd are all gone).
The 2011 class features Matthias Farley playing key minutes as a nickel back (he started as a wide receiver). It also swung and missed on Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown, a duo seemingly collecting dust before departing from the program at year’s end. And Hardy’s career was star-crossed even before he missed the majority of the season as part of the academic fraud case.
And now to the bad luck. The 2012 class should’ve been the backbone of this secondary. But injuries derailed Nicky Baratti‘s career. Tee Shepard never made it to spring football. CJ Prosise turned into a wide receiver. John Turner turned into a linebacker. And the future star of the group, accidental defensive back KeiVarae Russell, is serving a two-semester suspension from the university.
The true sophomore group is holding its own. Rashad Kinlaw didn’t last at Notre Dame, but Luke has the makings of a No. 1 cornerback. And Butler is getting better, even if a bad rep like the one he took against DeVante Parker turned into six points.
Throw in true freshman Nick Watkins to the two-deep, and you’ve got the entire motley crew that’ll try and slow down the Trojans passing game.
Of course, there is a bright side to this attrition. And that’s the experience that a player gains having been thrown into the fire. We’ve seen Farley emerge a better football player after last season’s adversity. And Kelly talked about the effect this opportunity could have on safety Elijah Shumate.
“We needed to get him back in the game and get him going and get some confidence and get him on the upswing,” Kelly explained. “In this game, in practice for the bowl, in the Bowl game, to really kind of sling shot him into next year.”
That slingshot effect will likely also be applied to Redfield. After talking about the disappointment of not having the opportunity to play against USC last season, the former Trojan commit and Southern California native finds himself in a precarious point of his career entering the season finale.
Relegated to special teams coverage the past two weeks while the safety play has been dreadful, the ACL injury to Drue Tranquill — not to mention Collinsworth’s inability to play effectively in space — should force Redfield into action. And hopefully Saturday is the day where we see flashes of the athlete the coaching staff knows they have married with the football player they want him to become.
“He’s got a great trait, it’s his athleticism,” Kelly said last week. “But he’s got to take that trait and really start to translate it on the field. And that means football knowledge, understanding the game, really taking what he learns in the classroom and applying it to the field. And he wants to do it. He’s willing to do it. He’s willing to put in the time.
“He knows that there’s things that he’s got to get better at in terms of recognition and understanding the game and where to be and when to trigger and all those things.”
For every young safety that sees the field immediately, there’s a dozen more than take time to learn the game. We watched Harrison Smith go from the doghouse to first-rounder. Former captain Kyle McCarthy went from special teamer to prolific tackling machine in his final two seasons.
Tasked with learning a new system and embracing a philosophy radically different than the one deployed the last four years, it’s been an up-and-down season for a group many expected to be the strength of the defense. But injuries, suspensions, and bad luck have played a hand in all of that.
It’s also a reason why the coaching staff continues to recruit the safety and cornerback position hard. Five defensive backs are slated to sign with the Irish in the 2015 class. And the staff is after more. They made their sales pitch to Florida safety Ben Edwards last weekend. They’ll take their swing at California cornerback Biggie Marshall at the team’s banquet — one of the biggest fish left on the board in the country. The Irish just entertained elite corner Ykili Ross and had Frank Buncom IV in town on an official visit earlier.
But all of that is around the corner. For now, the assignment is both remarkably difficult and astoundingly simple: